"Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat"
is a figure of Arthurian legend who dies of her unrequited love for Lancelot. Versions of her story appear in Thomas Malory's 15th century Le Morte d'Arthur
and Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King
, and is also the inspiration for Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
Elaine's story begins when Lancelot appeals to Elanie's father to help Lancelot enter a jousting tournament in disguise, so that he may win by skill rather than intimidation of his name. Her father agrees and lends Lancelot a plain white shield, leaving his own recognizable shield in the care of Elaine. While in the Astolat household, Elaine becomes enamoured of him and begs him to wear her token at the coming tournament, which Lancelot consents to.
Although Lancelot wins the tournament, he becomes injured and is taken to a hermit's cave in order to receive medical attention without revealing his identity. Elaine follows and nurses him back to health. She "loved him, with a love that was her doom" when Lancelot responds to her confession of love with an admission of only sisterly affection. Heartbroken, Elaine mourns for ten days while willing herself to die rather than have her love unrequited:
"Vain, in vain: it cannot be.
He will not love me: how then? must I die?
...O Love, if death be sweeter, let me die."
Elaine leaves instructions for her father to send her body down the river to Camelot to King Arthur's court. Dressed richly as a queen for her final farewell, Elaine is laid on a small boat beneath an embroidered silk case she had made for Lancelot's shield, holding a lily in her hand for her namesake, and a letter to her beloved knight.
"...And that clear-featured face
Was lovely, for she did not seem as dead,
But fast asleep, and lay as though she smiled."
When she is found by the court, Lancelot is summoned and hears the contents of Elaine's letter, confessing her love:
"...I loved you, and my love had no return,
And therefore my true love has been my death.
...Pray for my soul and yield me burial.
Pray for my soul though too, Sir Lancelot,
As thou art a knight peerless."
Lancelot mourns her passing, and grants her a funeral fit for royalty.
Elaine's epic, tragic tale has been visited by many literary and visual artists over the centuries and was a well loved theme for the pre-raphelite era, portrayed as both Elaine and the Lady of Shalott.
Illustrations of the maid have been depicted by many artists including Sophie Anderson, Toby Edward Rosenthal, and John William Waterhouse.
In my version, I chose to focus on a close-up composition of Elaine, removing the distraction of detailed background elements. The muted, misty tones of soft grays and blues incur a feeling of quiet melancholy, reflecting the lily maid's despondency. The golden elements of the candles, hair, and gold coverlet surround the figure with the glowing warmth of her love for her knight, a reminder of the joys of love, amidst the sorrows.